Mid winter. My neighbour has gone from Tasmania to Prince Edward Island, Canada, to a conference on islands. I have the key to his house where I go to feed his cat and to steadily make my way through his library. His house, a packing shed for a former orchard in these parts is full of curios. I am privileged to be here and feel uncomfortable about spilling its guts.
The inks and oils and bits and pieces on his walls and shelves are not of great commercial value. Most pieces are made by people he knows and cares for, or are pieces he has found, making them priceless, invaluable and irreplaceable. He is not averse to giving works away. He is that sort of man. The counterpoise of home and library is what makes me want to read his books and feed his cat. Old world charms – hand hewn Tasmanian oak floors and eclectic windows support and open up upon his upstairs study of new world orders. An arcane orchard of arse fuzzed quince and greengage plums cast shadows over volumes of the West Coast and of Heideggerian logic. Learned histories and authentic being shelter in a biophilial embrace.
Tins of cat food are stacked on the fridge. The whiting chunks in champagne mousse are to be opened on the cat’s birthday (see note on the fridge door). Perhaps I confuse this coming around for clear feeding instructions for Christmas Day last, before I made my way to his parents fishing shack on Georges Bay near St Helens.
He told me the cat’s name but I have forgotten. A big black cat. Probably Blackie. I call him Noah because the house is called the Ark. I imagine this is right. I have never seen it spelt. Someone knows. Nowadays in this street, social histories are Chinese whispers without a boat person in sight. A former tenant kept animals here when this cul-de-sac was no more than a rutted lane ambling up a rise. In the bushes, a lantern lit the entrance to this uphill track off Sandy Bay Road, a sign in the night for the coachman making his way south to stop; to unload his fare for the Ark.
My neighbour showed me Nineteenth century photographs and a portion of an early Twentieth century letter found under the kitchen floorboards. More than fruit sat boxed between these walls. From the landlord’s house behind, upon the hill, conflagrations, miscreants, accidents and indelicacies were sent packing to this shed. It is hard to imagine that some right bastards filled this place.
Feline and oak leaves blow in though the cat flap. Noah makes a beeline for the whiting. Human contact can wait. My neighbour knows what I like and I like what he likes. To go to my home I must pass his. He sees me through the gaps in his tee tree front fence. He comes out onto the road to talk. We play with words. We joke. We intellectualise. We teach at the university on piece rates. Him, journalism and geography, me, Indonesian and Asian Studies. He is a genuine student. I have a family to feed.
Born and raised in different decades in different parts of Australia, we speak of and across islands; trade stories, his Tasmanian, mine Western Australian and Indonesian. From where we stand we muse as we speak; look up to the Mountain or follow the fall of the road as it drops into the slate blue expanse of the River Derwent. His place is therefore a museum. And to our trades his home adds warmth and light. On this bitumen river we use a lingua franca, our phonetic glide for ships.
My neighbour tells me the Ark is National Trust. These days, national trust means ‘in perpetuity for a nation’ as much as public service means ‘a service for public good’. People in community remain, as do structures, while certain common nouns move on. Perhaps time renders national trust and public service (and even the ark) as verbs in past tense. Every muse is safe and dangerous; bits of every language arc and fade.
At night on Georges Bay I take the middle bench in the dinghy. Poised, to the front, my neighbour stands, Hawaiian sling in hand. Braced to the aluminium prow, a frame supports two underwater beams. The lights are on and he is at home. We float in the dark. In lime lit water garfish swim low. He eases forward and taps a fish on the spine. His concern is not with parallax error or refracting light as the spear enters the water, but with the health of this waterway and his family. The fish stays barbed and unbroken. He eases the needle-beaked sliver from the spear point onto the floor of the tinnie. His father sits behind me, his dark bulk at the tiller, throttle open a burble. These roles are established and secure. With them they have a fit in this place. They have tapped fish since he was six.
His father says nothing. He looks into the water, studying each gutter, each clump of rock and weed as text, easy as a middle aged working man on holiday skim reads pages of the morning paper.
Early autumn. My neighbour and I travel south from St Helens through the Fingal Valley. Faint snow flurries dab the windscreen of his van; a stickiness between my fingers – remnant icing from warm buns we ate at the bakery in St Marys. An empty choc milk bottle rolls around the dirty carpet at my feet. We slow in Fingal. The main street is wide. We get looks. Old coal mining town. Shadows and whispers; echoes from the pit. A river moves like a tiger snake ready to hibernate.
In an esky in the back of the van, small portions of fish: gar, whiting, leatherjacket, squid, mussels and oysters. Cleaned fillets, gifts, glad wrapped by his mother for each person at the shack. The cache is pooled. He who fishes is given according to need. And the oysters, Pacific ones, are clack stacked around the fish; their half shells await heat, grated cheese, bacon, chilli and onion in a Worcester marinade.
Noah rubs against my legs. I pour dry biscuits onto his plate and refresh his water bowl. A remnant smell of grilled mother of pearl permeates the Ark. My neighbour has pulverised the shell and cast it as lime in his kitchen garden. He was raised in the chocolate soils of the Coast and on the acid sands of the West Coast in a pub with museum; fished summers at an encampment in Macquarie Harbour; read books, wandered, entered shacks, discovered characters. Now, his work as a budding academic is to put pen to paper. Notwithstanding, he lives to become the men he admires.
I phone my parents on the other West Coast to tell of my fishing trip. My father’s boat, white pitting in the salt air sits under a Mediterranean sun near the edge of Lake Leschenault in South West Australia.
"Good deck hands are hard to get these days," he jests.
I hear him. Thanks to him I can drive a tinnie on a beam swell onto a crab buoy. I set a good bait and pull a swift rope. I never learned how to tap fish.
Easter. My father and I drive the Wheatley Coast Road out from Northcliffe; start to walk from the bridge over the Gardner River on the Chesapeake Road to Lake Maringup, a resting stretch of fresh water surrounded by stands of jarrah, karri, marri, bullich and yate sunk in an ancient swale twelve kilometres from the Indian Ocean. He imagines that I want to get him away, to talk money, and as a young family man to ask him for help.
At the southern end of the lake there is room for just one or two tents amongst the low tee tree, honey myrtle and fan flowers. I let him talk. From my rucksack I offer a fist sized bottle of scotch which he gratefully accepts. Head and face warmed he carries into the evening on the soft, distant, boom crash ocean.
Like the lake surrounds to the north and east, still recovering from fire, he opens up about Viet Nam, done neither before nor since. South of the DMZ he makes dark pacts and good friends, mainly with men. A loyal man it hurt him to leave. He stitched the decades in silence. He and I unravel into the bottlebrush and peppermints. Myrtaceae dominate story and understorey. Around him I witness the bark curl on one Tour of Duty.
The following day, from his pack, my father takes his sand wedge as shooting stick to the sea. A healthy swing and a miss. Life after war, bunkered. Golf taken up the year he returned; to pendulum, to follow through and to rest; a necessary diversion from family and the very momentum he sought.
A rivulet runs from the back of a dune. On the map, an intermittent arrowed curve reveals Subject to Inundation. With alcohol and stories the conditions are right. In the stream sway wild watercress and small marron. At rest mute on the sand, a monstrous head of an Australian Black Salmon. A canoeist drifts past on an ocean freakish calm. Warm for April.
Last day. Walking back to the car, we hear and see tiger snakes - one on the track and another slithering under and around thickets of paperbark and cutleaf wattle. Our packs are empty of sustenance. Lighter and stronger we are free to move and talk in the moment. We miss the right fork and hit the main road too far west. We complete the long triangle in silence.
Under the bridge we strip off to wash. The rumble of a family sedan, the whine of a four wheel drive and the thunder of a log truck passing overhead fail to pick us out. In our white nakedness we stoop below their line of sight. His sand wedge stands twig-like against a karri stanchion sixteen feet tall by fourteen inches square. The water is dark and clean. We soap up on a mud bank choked with bleached timber. I use my billy to draw water and to wash off, to keep the suds and scum out of the flow.
We share a towel.
In the car we sit tired-stiff, tousle haired, cold clean in old trousers and clean undershirts. A grey horizon settles low over the melaleuca plain. A journey home of two hundred and fifty miles. I take the wheel so he can rest. Not that he can when others drive.
Years later all his sons have moved away.
"Give mum my love. Tell her about the fishing," I close.
Written on hand made paper from her deckle my mother sends verse:
spearing through the light, the night
I clamber upstairs to the loft in the Ark, to my neighbour’s books. Literature review completed, his PhD awaits writing. Is this the bridge? Noah rests curled on the bed.
There is order to his library. Art and aged bits, not artful are placed with care, without fuss, and selected annotated readings sit in sun-weathered piles in tense angles on his study desk. He has tried to straighten them.
I email him. He spells out an urgent need to rewrite his conference paper. He starts to write at one thousand kilometres an hour at thirty five thousand feet on a rum line between Fiji and Hawaii.
His conference presentation on Tasmania’s first Ten Days on the Island pressed into forty seven minutes runs overtime. He competes with the World Cup. Conference delegates divide into teams for a friendly soccer match – North Atlantic versus the Rest of the World. Apparently Tasmania is in the North Atlantic. The game as always is a draw. My neighbour’s big win is to meet on the page the late Milton Acorn, Prince Edward Island’s ‘ragged trousered philanthropist’ of verse:
If you’re strong hearted look at this Island;
red gouges of creeks at low tide and
the stronger red that spreads behind the ploughs.
Don’t hold your tongue too long. It’ll swell
with so much good and so much bad to say…
If you’re strong hearted put your ear to the ground
to hear the lilt and cut of strong voices
discussing enemy moves without fear.2
The conference is meant to help him find a line for writing on islands and governance but each night there are people, Bill Holm and others, playing music, drinking and telling stories. And what they sing and say is well worth publicising.
Unpublished haiku on hand-made paper, written for me, I have given to my neighbour. The card sits more central than peripheral on his writing desk. The budding academic has suspended himself from his doctoral thesis. I suspect trouble. He has learned that life in the margins is more important than the text. Already his, a life of careful collecting and serendipitous finds, Ark and tangents. We ape structure and imagine that one day we might become academics. In reality we live for attempts. We are better off fishing and writing essays.
Haiku, Jo Robertson, 2002 (unpublished).
If You’re Strong Hearted after Auden, Milton Acorn, in The Edge of Home,
Poems Selected by Anne Compton, Island Studies Press, Charlottetown, 2002.
‘…ragged trousered philanthropist…’ after the title of the novel by Robert Tressell, first published 1914.